ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Over the course of 162 games, every manager in baseball has to balance the desire to win against the necessity of protecting his pitchers for the weeks and months to come.
Bobby Valentine has adhered to the rules in his first season as manager of the Red Sox, even using outfielder Darnell McDonald to pitch in an extra-inning game earlier this month rather than overwork the bullpen.
But there was something different in the stale air of Tropicana Field Thursday night. The Red Sox played the Rays like it was October, not May.
“I was going after this game tonight. I thought the guys really wanted this game and I was going to do everything we could to win it,” Valentine said
The result was a 5-3 victory and satisfied smiles in every corner of the clubhouse. If in two weeks the Red Sox are still on a roll, they may look back on this game as a turning point.
Valentine used five relievers to get the final 10 outs, at one point sending out Rich Hill, Scott Atchison, and Andrew Miller to face one batter each. Then it was left to Vicente Padilla and Alfredo Aceves to finish.
The bullpen, so fractured to start the season, protected the lead for Felix Doubront as the Red Sox won for the sixth time in seven games.
“Sometimes I’ll take some future considerations. There weren’t any future considerations tonight,” Valentine said.
It was a message the players wanted to hear.
“That’s how you do it in the National League,” said Cody Ross, who provided the necessary offensive punch by driving in four runs. “I liked it. I thought we really needed to get this game.”
The Rays, who entered the game tied for first place in the American League East, were the team that caught and passed the stumbling Sox last September and grabbed the wild-card playoff berth. They’re young, talented, and cocky, everything the Red Sox once were and aspire to be again.
“We’re trying to catch them,” said Aceves, who picked up his eighth save in 10 chances. “You have to win to do that, right?”
The game was particularly redeeming for Ross, who misplayed a popup in right field wednesday night that gave the Rays the winning run in a 2-1 game. He atoned for that with a bases-loaded walk in the first inning, a solo home run in the third, and a two-run single in the eighth.
“I felt really bad about last night to come out today and pick up the team and get a victory and split the short series is really big for us,” Ross said.
Said Valentine: “Cody was big tonight. Cody will give you everything he has and it’s enough for me. Good player.”
There were a few sparks in the game, too.
Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who has not hit a home run since April 17, said on Wednesday night that he would end that drought the next day.
Gonzalez was not entirely serious, but the Rays took offense. Before the game, a fan suggested on Twitter that Tampa Bay starter Matt Moore hit Gonzalez with a pitch. Rays pitcher David Price reposted that comment on his Twitter page, a tacit endorsement.
Gonzalez came to the plate in the first inning with runners on first and second. Moore’s first pitch, a 94-mile-per-hour fastball, hit Gonzalez to load the bases.
Gonzalez showed no reaction on his way to first base and finished the game 0 for 3. He later said he didn’t think it was intentional.
Valentine wasn’t entirely sure.
“If it was, it was the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in baseball. But it might have been. I doubt it,” he said. “Might have been. I doubt it. If we have to resort to that kind of stupidity then maybe the game has passed me by. It might.”
Moore struck out Will Middlebrooks on four pitches for the second out. But Ross worked a walk, seeing eight pitches before Moore missed with a changeup.
In the third inning, Doubront drilled Luke Scott with a fastball with two outs and a runner on first. It appeared to be retaliation and Scott yelled at Doubront from first base.
The Sox are 4-2 against the Rays this season.
• Daisuke Matsuzaka had another rocky night in Triple A. Pitching against Durham, he went 6.2 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) with three strikeouts. He didn’t walk anybody. There were two home runs and one was a bomb according to Pawtucket broadcaster Aaron Goldsmith.
Matsuzaka is scheduled to start again for Pawtucket on Tuesday.
• Will Middlebrooks has six hits in his last 36 at-bats with 14 strikeouts and is down to .259. He is hitless in his last nine at-bats with six strikeouts.
This happens at every level. Players get hot, pitchers figure them out, and the good payers make adjustments. Middlebrooks has done that along the way and he’ll get his chance in the majors. The question is when that happens. Kevin Youkilis could be back as soon as Saturday.
• A glaring weakness in April, the bullpen is now a strength. They have a 1.38 ERA since April 23, the best in the majors. “Super,” Valentine said. “They’re getting ready, they’re coming in, they’re throwing strikes. They know their job. Pass the baton. Proud of them and they should be proud of themselves for being highly professional.”
• Mike Aviles was ejected by plate umpire Dan Bellino for arguing balls and strikes in the seventh inning. It was his first career ejection. “I thought he gave me the hook a little quick, prematurely. At that point, I definitely lost my cool and I apologize for that. But it was definitely a little frustrating,” Aviles said.
Just a guess, but I bet the umpires hate the Red Sox. Every pitcher takes forever to throw the ball and then they stare in whenever they don’t get calls. And the hitters are now getting incredulous over calls, too. It’s something Valentine needs to end because there’s no winning that battle.
• Did you catch Marlon Byrd sprinting around the bases when he homered in the second inning? It was his first since last September 21 when he was with the Cubs.
• Ross has hit three of his seven home runs against the Rays. He has 27 RBIs in 36 games.
• Thanks to everybody for reading tonight and sorry again for the tech issues. 6:15 a.m. flight to Philly. Question is whether to try and sleep or not.
Catch you tomorrow.